“A lie can travel around the world and back again, while the truth is lacing up it’s boots.” – Mark Twain

Words have power. They ignite revolutions, start wars, or they calm tensions. Words can enlighten, or they can spread dangerous lies. Societies have risen and fallen based on words alone.

Which is why the words the news media chooses are so important.

The media’s ability to frame the issues and the influence they have on our public consciousness is unmatched. Why else would political campaigns spend millions on messaging? Why else would autocrats go to great lengths to control the media? The news media is the fourth estate, an institution in our country. So powerful, it’s considered a check on political power.

And nowhere is their power and influence more constant and enduring – no matter the season, the year, the decade –  than when reporting on rape and sexual assault.

The words the media uses are relentless. They permeate our gray matter. We absorb them. When we hear or read a word enough times, it comes tumbling out of our own mouths unbidden. Words have a unique way of influencing thoughts and molding assumptions without us even realizing it.

Which is why the vague words the media uses to report rape and sexual abuse are so damaging. Why euphemisms and distortions are dangerous.

Tepid headlines about rape and abuse minimize the violence. When rape is called “sex,” the victims are framed as willing participants. When the rape/assault/murder is not called what it is, violent acts are protected. Every time the media fails to report the naked truth, it is serving the abusers. The desire by the media to not make us uncomfortable causes real and lasting harm to victims of abuse. And it makes future assault that much easier and more likely to go unpunished.

For every one negative thing a person is told, five positives must be told to counteract it. This is the power and the danger of words. For every lie told, the truth has to climb a bigger hill to be heard. For every misconception and minimization of sexual violence, victims have to speak out about their abuse.

Again.

Louder.

Resurrecting trauma and opening old wounds until society takes notice and listens. And then, wait for dozens more to do the same before anyone believes them.

There are few things on this Earth more powerful than words.

And every time the media sanitizes rape and abuse, it not only minimizes abuse and life long trauma, it offers a helping hand to predators.

And it happens all the time.

“Sixteen Year Old Prostitute Kills Man,” is a lie. A sixteen year old is a victim of child sex trafficking. But we don’t like to think about children being sexually abused and bought and sold. We prefer to think that she must have been at fault, that a child who can’t consent to medical treatment is old enough to consent to being sold for money. This is the cognitive dissonance that our culture and our media reinforces and likes to wrap itself in. After all, centuries of sexual abuse of altar boys in the Catholic Church didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was allowed. By hushed voices and looking away.

“Woman In Coma Gives Birth,” is a lie of omission. It ignores the the crucial part of the news-  that a woman in a vegetative state for 27 years was raped. But reading about a vulnerable woman in a coma is a lot harder to swallow with your morning coffee. We’re much more comfortable with the lie that a woman who can’t speak or move can consent to sex.

“Woman Died” is a whisper of a headline. “Husband Kills Wife,” is a scream that matches the violence and ongoing epidemic of domestic abuse that society prefers to ignore. One we say is a “private matter.” An issue to be “dealt with in the marriage.” What better way to keep our hands clean, after all? What better way to not have to deal with the fact that thousands of women and children die every year at the hands of angry men?

When the news media can’t bear to call rape, rape and to call lies, lies, victims are left to fend for the truth themselves.  Not only is the media lying when it refuses to use the correct words, it is perpetuating violence against victims.

The medias lies and evasions support rape culture. They feed it. And just so we’re clear, there is a direct line between rape culture – a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse – and violence against children and women and the LGBT+ community.

Sanitized reporting on sexual violence absolves rapists and pedophiles of their responsibility. Is this the editor’s or writer’s intent? Probably not. Their intent is to make the subject more palatable to readers. But rape and sexual abuse should not be palatable. The idea that we need to avoid discomfort is precisely why this problem persists at epidemic proportions. This is the intersection of rape culture and purity culture.

Purity culture uses women’s bodies to sell products, but revolts at a bare breast feeding a baby. Purity culture refuses to teach it’s children about autonomy and consent and reproductive rights and birth control, for fear it will induce promiscuity- yet turns away when those same children are sexually assaulted and raped. In purity culture women and children are to serve as props. To stroke egos and stroke men. We are to take the abuse and stuff it down, not speak up about it. We are to be proper and polite and absolutely, unflinchingly accommodating in our manner and speech. And when we are abused at the hands of those more powerful, we are only allowed to whisper of it to people who aren’t in a position to help.

This is what the media is endorsing and selling every time they diminish violence against our bodies and souls.

The ripple effect of how it’s reported is never ending. It shows up in how law enforcement and District Attorneys interpret a victim’s story. In pop culture. In the way schools and churches try to cover it up. You see it when judges and juries and neighbors refuse to believe victims. When society treats the victims like a collaborator. An accomplice in their own abuse.

When you do this, dear media, you are telling every little child who has had their soul shattered by sexual abuse that they were complicit. You are telling every teen girl who gets groped by grown men that they are to silence the sick feeling.  You tell every person living in denial about what is going on in their own home or their school or church that sticking their head in the sand is not only acceptable, but how polite society handles such unsavory subjects. You tell every man who has the desire to rape and abuse that you’ve got his back and you will soften his sick cruelty when you speak of it to the world.

Every time you water it down or sanitize the truth you perpetuate rape myths. The myth of the false accuser. The myth of the victimless crime. The myth that rape is only rape if it’s in a dark alley at the hands of a stranger. And cuts and bruises better be present or it’s not “legitimate rape.” The myth that a victim’s clothes render a predator unable to control their actions. Every single one of these myths you’re feeding is weaponized against victims- in courtrooms and in jury pools and in schools and the town rumor mill. These are the things whispered in the ears of victims who fight back. It’s what rapists tell their victims “no one will believe you, you filthy whore. You know you want it. You asked for it.” Intentional or not, you’re sending the same message as every abuser and rapist in their most violent moments. It’s as if you lifted his script and cleaned it up for the evening news.

And you wonder why victims don’t report.

When news reports of rape or sexual abuse are doused in antiseptic, the lie travels around the world twice before survivors have even had a chance to speak their truth. The retractions and corrections will land with a dull thud, barely making a sound. Your words are carnival music playing during the carnage scene of a bad movie. One that they are trying to rewrite with every breath and every step forward. And it leaves victims feeling alone in a world that doesn’t want to see or hear what they can’t forget.

And with each muddled headline the media looks increasingly like the puppet, with the likes of R. Kelly, and Harvey Weinstein – and every other disgusting abuser bloated with his own self imposed entitlement – pulling your strings. From the creepy network executive, to the slimy anchor with a door lock button under his desk, to the filthy man grabbing girls on the bus, you are their flunky. Repeating their message for them, taking the horrors they’ve visited upon the innocent and making it sound not that bad, really.  Brave people are coming forward to tell their stories. And each of them is showing the world what truth looks like, making the lie harder for you to sell.

What would happen, dear media, if you stopped shrouding the truth in soft words? What would happen if the news spoke to these things plainly, clearly, every time?

Maybe judges will stop telling young victims they should have kept their legs closed.

Maybe it won’t take 265 women coming forward before a man receives due justice and is finally stopped from abusing young girls.

Maybe rape kits will get processed and rapes will get prosecuted.

Maybe we’ll start believing victims. One single victim. Without a chorus of victims behind them.

Maybe judges won’t hand out light sentences for predators and maybe fathers of rapists won’t call it “twenty minutes of action” and maybe the public will stop worrying about a college-bound rapist’s future and maybe children will actually be safe in their homes and their schools and their churches and at sports practice and maybe women will be able to go to college without being one in four and maybe women will be able to go to work without their bodies being groped while their ideas are ignored and maybe black trans women will not be murdered and immediately forgotten and maybe you can see that this is a very real problem you’re perpetuating every time you speak of it softly.

Maybe it won’t take a hashtag movement before the world starts believing the stories we’ve been telling. The stories that have existed since the beginning of time, yet somehow half the population is bewildered at all the #MeToo’s.

Maybe victims can take a break from the fight for truth about abuse. Because we’re tired of carrying water for the media and a society that doesn’t want to hear or see it.

Maybe our children will grow up in a different world. One that no longer offers shelter to abusers.

Those who’ve opened up their wounds to bleed, to right the wrongs still being done, will not stand by while the media continues to soft-peddle acts of violence. We will scream the truth until it circles the globe, before the limp words drip out of your mouth.

Dear media, words matter. The false propriety you hide behind is a facade. An excuse. They make you the collaborator. The mouthpiece of the predators. The foothold to power structures that profit off of victims. They make you complicit, even if you didn’t intend to be a participant.

Time’s up on your ancillary reporting.

Do better.

Sexual assault is like a death. A death of who you would have been. Who you were before. It is a violation of the body and the mind, but most profoundly, the soul. Many of us survive by allowing that part of us, the innocent part, to die.

I died many years ago, that part of me. There were moments when I thought he would kill me. And in a way, he did. He killed the little girl who danced instead of walked. He killed the little girl who looked at the world in wonder. I could have held on to her and let her live, but I had to let her go.

This is how I survived what he did to me. I was three, maybe four. I can’t be sure because the details of mundane facts are secondary to the horrors I can’t escape. The date, the season, his last name- all facts that are blurred by the senses. By the fear that gripped my belly. By the smells and the sounds and the tastes. He was 18. Still a boy? Almost a man? Acting out youthful urges? Or a sick person who couldn’t see me as human?

I didn’t tell anyone. Not telling was crucial to my survival. If I’d told, if I’d been forced to tell, it would have killed the new me. The one who was trying to put a life together after her death. I don’t think I could have survived two deaths. So I buried it deep, refused to talk about it, pushed away the memories that would creep back with persistence. I buried her, but she was always there. The things that happened to her were the background noise in my life. I got so used to it that I was able to forget it was there. Until something reminded me. A smell. A sound. A name. A nightmare.

This is how I went through life for thirty six years. Ignoring her ghost. Shoving the memories away as soon as they crept into my conscious. I was determined to be fine.

This is what we do. We survive, we shed the ghost of who we were, who we could have been. We move on and move forward. And most of us never tell.

Shame. Guilt. Complicity. Fear. Knowing you won’t be believed. Knowing he won’t be punished or prosecuted or caught. Hearing the narrative your whole life, the victim blaming. The what was she wearing, how much did she drink, did she flirt, she shouldn’t have been there, why didn’t she tell sooner  that drips with a combination of ignorance and contempt. All of this is amplified for those of us who have died and survived. We hear them talking about us. 

But they don’t know the truth about us.

Our truth is not for men who haven’t walked our path to judge. Men and women who haven’t had to forge a new life after trauma are not equipped to say how or when or why we should speak. Our iron resolve is seen as suspicious, curious. Our mere existence after the fires we’ve walked through makes you question if a match was ever lit. You, the men and women who can’t know the truth, you see our strength and lives well lived and make the ridiculous assumption that rape is no big deal. That being dehumanized and violated is akin to bad sex.

We hear you scoff at and minimize terror. We see you sneer in disbelief when we stand upright and tell our stories. We hear you shame us. Fret over our abuser’s future and his good name. We hear you liken his loss of reputation or job or freedom to a kind of death. We hear you worry about his impending non-death, ignoring the fact that he’s already killed us.

We hear all of this and wonder why we would ever tell.

We hear of men getting a slap on the wrist for raping and choking and penetrating unconscious women. We hear young girls get blamed for their pastor or teacher or neighbor abusing them. We watch institutions get tax breaks while raping altar boys. We see men get promoted and elevated who take from women. We see young boys getting virtual high fives from the courts when their teacher abuses them, instead of the justice they deserve.

We are the forgotten girls and women and boys and men. Those you forsake and dismiss. The ones you try to discredit. The ones you accuse of lying -as if admitting you’ve died at the hands of sick, cruel men is something anyone would voluntarily claim.

Survivors don’t create false enemies. People who have endured battles don’t create fake wars. Those in power will claim the victim status to justify their grasping for more power. They will create enemies out of ghosts and narratives out of lies. They send young men off to fight battles they could never fight themselves. They pat our heads and say they are doing it all for us, then shove us over the cliff as soon as we turn our back. They are using you. And me. And anyone who isn’t in their club.

We are the women and men who say #MeToo. We are the ones who have risen from the ashes of a world that sees us as expendable. A world created by the men grasping at power. A world they enabled and perpetuated.

We are the girls and boys and women who will not allow you to use your patronizing protection of us to justify the abuse of others. You cry What about the women and children!  You fein concern for our safety in the Target bathroom, but scoff at the very real scars we show you. You use us to lock up and abuse black men. You drag them behind pick up trucks for whistling at us or hang them from trees for looking at us wrong. You screech from your saccharine coated throats about gangs and immigrants and protecting the women and children but elevate the wealthy white men who rape and beat us with impunity.

You tell us we’re overreacting when you have barely seen a glimpse of our fury. You pretend confusion or ignorance. #MeToo? What is this? Surely this can’t be so?  We see you. We see right through you. We see you use us as a shield for your bigotry and supremacy. All while ignoring the real threats. Men like you are the real threat. Men who abused us and raped us. Men who laughed or stood by or shrugged it off. Men who act confused and suspicious about the reality of this world that has existed since the beginning of time. We see you.

We watch you step over the bodies of the girls and women you claim to love while you climb your way to power. Your casual indifference and faux pity is noted.

So is your fear. You are threatened by us. Our #MeToo, our voices, they threaten your grip on power. They shake your hold on oppression. Without us you have no excuse to start wars and shut down progress and lock up innocent men and familes.

We are the sons and daughters of the hysterical women you locked up in asylums. We are the grandchildren of women who were raped by their masters and had their children sold to other men. We are the children of the women who burned their bras and fought for women’s rights. We are the sisters of the woman who marched in the Slut Walks. We are the descendants of the Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis you refused to address.

We are the daughters of the women who were chased around desks at work. We are the sons and daughters of women who covered their bruises and dried their eyes before the school bus arrived.

We’re the men and women who have our own scars and our own stories and we’re done staying silent and in the shadows. We are the people who will fight til our last breath so that our daughters and sons never have to live with ghosts of their own.

We are all the forgotten ghosts you refuse to acknowledge. Grit and fury is in our DNA. 

We will not let their deaths be in vain, those whose lives were stolen by sick men. The ghosts we live with. We will avenge them, not with the blood of  men, but with the truth. We will scream their truth until you can’t forget our ghosts either. Until you can’t close your eyes without seeing the faces of the lives snuffed out by sick and depraved people. Until their stories are your background music too. You will see our ghosts, but more importantly, you will see who rose from their ashes. The survivors. We will speak our truths until your ears bleed from knowing and your brains are seared with our stories. Until you can no longer languish in cruel indifference. Until you can’t unsee the horrors your apathy has enabled.

There is no more peace for you, as long as you pretend not to see. No more allowance for apathy or ignorance when truth is staring you in your face.

No rest for abusers. No refuge for rape apologists and misogynists. No comfort for bigots who use our pain to justify their ends. No refuge for men and women who allow it to continue and minimize it.

We will not quietly go away. We will not feel shame. Or guilt. We will not be scared from standing and marching and fighting. We will speak our truths, their truths. We will speak it until we can speak no more.

The dead can’t talk, but we can.

 

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

 

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My ghost, circa 1977